Early in Amazon’s “Homecoming” there’s a tracking shot following Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) as she exits work while on the phone with her boss (Bobby Cannavale). The eerie stillness of the employees, building, Esmail’s camera shots, and score that feels like a combination of a B horror movie and a Trent Reznor score immediately gives you a vibe as if it’s a horror thriller where the government is experimenting on people (Having only seen the first four episodes, I have no idea if this is true). It doesn’t matter what the voice on the other end of the phone is saying, the tone of it alone is enough to tell you he’s the Baghdad Bob of this operation, the gaslighter in chief.
The theme of PTSD soldiers returning from war and finding themselves in the wrong body, the wrong world fits Esmail’s alienation and paranoia like a glove. The soldier Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) becomes convinced they aren’t in Florida at all and they’re all being set up. His friend and the show’s male protagonist Walter Cruz (Stephan James) doesn’t have it as bad. His scenes connecting with Heidi and talking with fondness about his friends from the war alive or dead add some needed humanity and warmth. The stories don’t contain flashbacks save a haunting shot of broken glasses on the ground, relying instead on the emotion he is able to convey as Heidi would hear them. James is a potential star with the look of an action hero but the ability to convey tenderness and pain. He holds his own and more with the great Julia Roberts.
Heidi shows you don’t have to be a war veteran to feel alienated or broken and as in her Oscar nominated role in August: Osage County role Roberts proves excellent at playing at this older and damaged version. Her ability to connect with Walter shows she has the right job, but it’s in the wrong place. She would have been great with underprivileged kids or with war veterans but without the underbelly of Homecoming. Like her romantic life, she just never found that right spot. Her scenes with Walter or her ex-boyfriend Anthony (Dermot Mulroney) shows a softness and empathy, but in her waitress future she’s tougher and harder to reach, the memories she’s lost also taking a part of herself. It’s unclear by the time she has dinner with Anthony again in the future and suddenly sounds like her gentler self whether she subconsciously reverted back, or is merely putting on a face for him.
Homecoming is at heart a director’s piece from the still or tracking shots, off balance cameras, split screens, a vertical aspect ratio to represent the future timeline, and a score that’s integral to nearly every scene. Near the end of the first episode when the investigator Carrasco (Shea Wigham) is interviewing Heidi, the camera suddenly starts zooming in on his face followed by Heidi’s which creates a creepy disorientating effect combined with the horror-like score. In other shows these flourishes may be distracting, but are appropriate with Esmail’s themes of alienation and keeping the audience slightly off balance and his history playing with form such as Mr. Robot’s sitcom parody episode.
Even at 30 minutes an episode watching Carrasco slowly inch his way through paperwork or Heidi discover slightly more about her past can move at a frustrating pace and as if Esmail is playing a game with the audience but without the big clues to make every step engrossing. For that reason the scenes between Heidi and Walter adding character development and humanity are welcome to take pressure off the mystery plot and give the audience a relationship to root for.
With a visual style and interest in alienation and paranoia that’s uniquely his, Homecoming proves Sam Esmail is one of TV’s truest auteurs.
In Netflix’s new adaptation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch there are so many plot threads it’s difficult to keep track of them all. In just the first episode there’s the introduction of the “big bad”-esque Mrs. Wardell (Michelle Gomez), before Sabrina is hexed by the Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, and Abigail F. Cowen) who have a Malfoy family like hatred for witches who aren’t pure blood. Another antagonist is introduced in the principal Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) who doesn’t want to reprimand jocks for the sexual assault of pulling Sabrina’s tomboy friend Susie (Lachlan Watson)’s shirt up, and in the second episode she deals with the bullies themselves. The key storyline is Sabrina’s upcoming witch baptism on her 16th birthday which would lead to a new school and new powers, but she has to decide whether it’s worth losing normal life and her relationship with her friends Susie and Ros (Jaz Sinclair) and boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) who she hasn’t told she’s a witch. This introduces another antagonistic figure in Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) as the devil’s Earth representative to push her towards going through with it, while Sabrina’s zealot aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) becomes increasingly antagonistic herself and vicious to the beta aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis). Eventually the devil himself in scary enough goat form arrives to establish he is the real antagonist to worry about. If that wasn’t enough Sabrina and her friends look to start a women’s activist group, she learns her parents deaths and family tree aren’t what it appears, a spirit shows up as her cat Salem, and her cousin and confidante Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) discovers there’s a witch hunter on the loose.
Unsurprisingly juggling so many plots comes at a cost. After her introduction Mrs. Wardell who may as well be wearing a neon sign saying “WAKE UP SABRINA, I AM EVIL” in all their scenes together, largely comes off as a toothless spectator through the first two episodes after being supplanted by other satanic characters like Aunt Zelda, Father Blackwood and the devil. There’s little time spent on developing Harvey beyond being unknowing and pretty, nor is there anything known yet through two episodes about Sabrina’s best friend Ros. At one point after having a revelation involving her parents during a vision in a bathtub, she awakes and rushes to finds Ambrose… to resolve the plot of getting revenge on principal Hawthorne.
The climatic baptism is most exciting of the two episodes as Father Blackwood and his satanists are foreboding and the scene plays like Sabrina on the verge of joining a cult. The orange hue representing Sabrina’s hell-ish visions are effective, less effective is the show’s infamous blur screen. There is no rhyme or reason when the show chooses to enter blur vision, instead of say it representing magic being cast, it happens at any given time such as a mundane scene like Sabrina entering her house.
Kiernan Shipka does her best to bring life to Sabrina. There’s a moment early on where after reaching a new level of emotional connection with her boyfriend, Sabrina enters her house and dances in jubilation after using magic to play “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Later in the episode, Sabrina looks up to the trees and comments to Harvey she loves the sound of wind blowing through them, or has to show the pain of the secret she can’t tell him. In both Shipka shows being a teenager is sometimes fun, but as often painful and self serious. Otto and Davis playing Sabrina’s often at odds aunts also bring a spark in their scenes and Perdomo as Ambrose is likeable. However these moments of life are often few and far between, as more often than not the show has too many plot threads and exposition to address to really look up and admire the wind.
In Mad Men Matthew Weiner excelled exploring the world of emotionally alienated people. Its characters worked alongside each other or even in relationship or marriage often without really sharing emotional intimacy with each other, share a few moments where they had no choice such as the loss of someone important to them.
The Romanoffs on the other hand is about connection in surprising places. In the first episode “The Violet Hour” a French-Muslim maid (Inès Melab) develops a friendship with the rich, racist woman she’s serving (Marthe Keller), in addition to having a connection with her nephew (Aaron Eckhart). In the second episode “The Royal We” a couple having marital problems each develop their own connection with someone outside their relationship as the husband (Corey Stoll) is drawn to a woman he’s sharing jury duty with (Janet Montgomery) while the wife (Kerry Bishé) goes on the family ancestry cruise without him and meets another unhappily married man (Noah Wyle). The third episode “House of Special Purpose”, the weirdest and darkest of the three and with the most career driven characters is the closest to Mad Men in terms of alienated characters, however the actress protagonist (Christina Hendricks) does have moments of connection with both her erratic director (Isabelle Huppert) and co-star (Jack Huston).
The dialog between the characters in the Romanoffs is complex. It’s not just about what characters say, but what they don’t say while saying it, which is a trait it shares with Mad Men. Often the silence or the facial expression by the person listening is as meaningful as the one talking. In the first episode Melab’s character is berated by her tenant, but withholds her true feelings or pride. In the second episode both Bishé and Stoll’s characters hold deep unshared insecurities and confusions about their marriage they are not communicated, and in the third episode Hendricks plays a character who in her words has been acting since she was 18 even when the camera isn’t rolling, playing the submissive actress to please producers and directors because she feels that’s what they want of her. The struggle to truly express herself off the set mirrors the desire for her director and co-star to greater express herself on it.
At times it’s hard to believe Matthew Weiner made both shows. Compared to Mad Men, The Romanoffs is lighter and warmer, aesthetically it trades in claustrophobic office settings for a more modern and outdoors friendly setting. The costumes and set designs are not as directly stylized as Mad Men, but the cinematography and score (often using Russian composers) stands out more. A scene with a motorcycle ride through Paris in the first episode especially stands out for visual beauty. Both shows have humor but The Romanoffs feels closer to a comedy designation and has more moments of whimsy, or at least the first two episodes do. The second episode is especially comedic between Stoll’s character using 12 Angry Men tactics to spend as much time in the jury room with his crush as possible, or on the cruise ship Bishé’s character running across some people fully cosplaying their Russian ancestors such as a man who tosses shot glasses behind his shoulder every time he takes one, to the bartender’s chagrin.
Ultimately what Weiner proved in both shows is a fascination with the subject of connection. Mad Men is more concerned of the pain of not having it, while The Romanoffs is about characters who do have it.